The Embassy Mayfair, which has been around since 1870, is trumpeting its reopening, as Kitchen Joël Antunès, as the return of a “legend”. That’s a lot to live up to; Nelson Mandela is a legend. Pele is a legend. That guy you went to uni with who used to get drunk and do the windmill is a legend, in his own lunchtime at least. Kitchen Joël Antunès, it turns out, isn’t. At all.
The dining room is an expansive canteen with white tiled floors and mirrored pillars. Off-white booths are accented by a disagreeable shade of peppermint. French Riviera seems to be the goal but it’s closer to Club Med, or a Saga cruise holiday, right down to the framed photographs of arm-band clad bathers. To really give you that cruise-liner experience, the lights flickered on and off for the duration of my meal, while the staff gazed sadly upwards like lost sailors trying in vain to read a map of the stars.
The chefs played their roles to a tee, preparing food that would have been at home on an ocean-liner buffet. The gnocchi starter came drenched in a watery sauce, while the cubes of sponge accompanying it were unrecognisable as crab. The buffalo with aubergine was a greasy mass of unappealing grey and beige that tasted like it had been violently drowned in a tub of oil.
The starters were unpleasant but they were left in the shade by the mains. Coq au vin should be ingrained in the DNA of a restaurant specialising in Provençal cuisine; it should come as naturally as breathing or being rude to American tourists. Not so. The insipid hunk of soggy flesh came, rather appropriately, in its own tiny black sarcophagus, hunched in a feeble sauce and decorated with a sorry selection of wilted vegetable matter. Its coffin should have remained sealed. The duck was worse – a thick brown scab, ripe for the picking, sat atop a layer of chewy fat. It was a roll-call of how not to prepare anything with a beak and both left the table with barely a bite taken.
Dessert was no sweet relief. It had never before occurred to me to construct a layer cake with sheets of sugar-soaked loft insulation and this was a visceral demonstration of why.
Joël Antunès (the chef) won a Michelin star in 1994 for his Les Saveurs restaurant on Curzon Street. Whatever your views on the Michelin system, his latest venture isn’t even close.
A meal with so few redeeming features is a rarity – an experience you should be able to dine out on for years to come, embellishing the details with every telling. Antunès even falls short on this count. Ex-footballer Tony Adams was sitting at the next table to us – apparently he met his wife at the members’ club here. When that’s the most interesting talking point after a meal, there is something sadly lacking.
This is an edited version of an article first published in City A.M. on 24 January 2012